Climate whiplash – a 21st century disorder

Whiplash is the most common road trauma injury, caused by the head moving suddenly one way and back the other. It’s also a fitting description for what climate change is doing to people’s minds. 

“Climate whiplash” has been coined by Australia’s independent Climate Council to describe the state of our weather in a warming world, “as communities are hurtled between flooding rains to heatwaves and fierce fire conditions, and back again.”

In this land of droughts and flooding rains we shouldn’t be surprised when Australia’s driest three-month period on record, August to October 2023, is followed immediately by big rains across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. But like the 2019-20  shift from drought and fire to massive rains and flooding, this more recent case of climate whiplash was extraordinary.

As the Climate Council reported, more Queensland homes were lost in a deadly Darling Downs blaze late in October than the state lost through the whole of Black Summer. In the same region a couple of weeks later, weather stations registered their highest November rainfall on record, while the next month southeast Queensland was hammered by extreme downpours leading to massive flood damage. 

An early, ferocious fire season in Victoria’s Gippsland was quickly followed by extreme rain and flash flooding in what was supposed to have been a dry El Nino summer. And throughout the big wet up and down the East Coast, Western Australia has been enduring a hot, dry summer with fierce wildfires.

As if on cue, just last week we saw much the same scenario play out again, except that it all happened in the same state on the same day. Violent collisions between oceanic and continental weather systems are common in south-east Australia, but Victoria’s experience last Tuesday was one out of the box.

The day began with two warnings: a fire weather warning for the Grampians to the west and a severe thunderstorm warning for Gippsland in the east, with high winds, heavy rain and flash flooding.

Within hours winds gusting above 120 km/h – partly convective thunderstorm downdrafts – caused the dramatic collapse of old, rusting transmission towers, forcing the Loy Yang A coal-fired power station offline and cutting power to around 500,000 people across greater Melbourne.

With worsening fire conditions in the Grampian region, watch and act warnings were quickly followed by advice to leave now and opening of an emergency relief centre in Ararat. Around the same time Melbourne was being drenched and bombarded with hail from thunderstorms.

The Australian Energy Market Operator then advised that it could not complete the task of restoring power to Melbourne and outlying areas – replacing poles, mending lines, rebuilding towers – until fallen trees and powerlines were dealt with. Some homes might be weeks without power.

As Melbourne was drenched, to the west wildfire smoke turned the sky orange. In Pomonal 45 homes were lost and firefighters were injured when their vehicle was trapped. Ballarat residents faced their own emergency – a fire burning out of control 10 km out of town – while in Gippsland residents were hit with storm-force winds that wrecked homes and uprooted avenues of trees.

Across all of this summer’s extremes, Climate Council scientists identified clear symptoms of an overheating planet resulting from fossil fuel pollution, including very warm seas and intense downpours.  They also found evidence that cyclical weather patterns such as El Niño are themselves changing as a result of high levels of greenhouse gases. 

A southerly shift in the westerly wind belt this summer – unusual during an El Niño event – allowed easterly winds from the Tasman Sea to drench parts of the eastern states. That may have prevented flash drought, a new phenomenon where abnormally hot weather causes a rapid shift from normal to severe drought conditions. 

Weather patterns that have grown out of years, decades and centuries of observations are fraying, and not just at the edges. The seasons are not as they once were. It may still be hotter when the sun is high in the sky than when it’s not, but little else is predictable.

This summer’s clear lesson has been that heat is just one of many outcomes of climate change. An atmosphere that’s warmer is also more dynamic, just as water in a kettle doesn’t just get warmer but also becomes agitated and steamy.

Bypassed by the extreme weather to our north, it has been a blissful summer in my corner of this smaller island. Who knows when it will be our turn to face the music? I can only suggest we count our blessings, pray daily to the weather gods, and do all in our power to get Australia off fossil fuels.

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